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Extremism is not determined by a handshake

A new law in Switzerland tests the limits of multiculturalism in Europe, writes HA Hellyer
The decision in Switzerland to impose fines on young students who fail to shake hands with their schoolteachers has raised issues around multiculturalism in Europe yet again. Getty Images
The decision in Switzerland to impose fines on young students who fail to shake hands with their schoolteachers has raised issues around multiculturalism in Europe yet again. Getty Images

A decision in Switzerland to impose fines on young students who fail to shake hands with their schoolteachers has raised issues around multiculturalism in Europe yet again. This follows the refusal of some Muslim male youths to shake the hands of their female teachers, citing a religious injunction against it – and after some controversy, a law has been passed.

The justification that followed was that shaking hands is a necessary part of Swiss culture, particularly when it pertains to students in a classroom. And, indeed, there is something of a ritual in some Swiss schools, where students are expected to shake the hands of their teachers in a sign of respect as they enter the classroom. The refusal of some Muslim boys to do so has been seen as evidence of increasing radicalism among Muslim Swiss, but the situation is more complicated than that.

Only a few years ago Switzerland held a referendum that made it illegal for minarets to be placed on mosques – in a country where minarets could be counted in the low single digits. The clear message of that move was that the visibility of Islam is unwelcome.

Moreover, Switzerland is a part of a continent where xenophobia has been rearing its ugly head against Muslims for years. Only last week, Robert Fico, the Slovakian prime minister (whose country will take over the EU presidency quite soon), declared that “Islam has no place in Slovakia” – comments that would have been unthinkable if said about any other religion. The law around handshaking in Switzerland is not being discussed in a vacuum.

When it comes to the refusal of some Muslim students to shake the hands of their teachers, it is not necessarily a sign of extremism at all. One presumes that many ultraorthodox Jews, for example, males as well as females, prefer not to shake the hands of the opposite gender – and they’re not about to go off to join radical groups. Among Muslims, it’s a sign of conservatism. Many deeply anti-extremist Sufis, for example, prefer not to shake hands with the opposite gender. The presumption of extremism is certainly not a foregone conclusion.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t an argument that Muslim Swiss should shake hands with the opposite gender. After all, just as there are conservative Muslims who do not shake hands, there are also conservative Muslims that do, and both follow interpretations of gender interaction that they think are religiously permissible. The question is how they come to those decisions – and what space they should have to do so. This new law just damaged that space.

Ten years ago, a similar controversy arose in the UK, when Jack Straw, a prominent British politician, wrote about the wearing of the niqab in his constituency. There was already a debate within British Muslim communities about that very issue, with many arguing that while the niqab had precedent in Islamic tradition, it wasn’t one that was universally considered obligatory. Thus, just as many Muslim communities around the world had opted for another interpretation (that the niqab wasn’t necessary), so might British Muslims, particularly considering how alien it appeared to their non-Muslim compatriots.

When Mr Straw raised the issue, however, he did so in a fashion that ended the space for discussion. Mr Straw wrote against the niqab, from a very powerful position, as a senior British politician with a cabinet post and he did so in the mainstream media. British Muslim women who wore the niqab could never compete with that kind of power position – regardless of how integrated they were into British society at large in terms of their commitment to British laws and institutions.

That episode did not result in a law being enacted in the UK, nevertheless – and that kind of coercive tool makes room for discussion within the Swiss Muslim community even more difficult. Swiss Muslims might have been having a very healthy conversation about this very issue around handshaking. Those who insisted on the more conservative position might have been suggesting that those who felt uncomfortable might have taken to wearing gloves in the morning, just as some ultraorthodox Jewish women wear wigs, rather than headscarves, to conceal their hair.

But the conversation is now effectively over due to the law. Should Muslim Swiss citizens have responded differently? Possibly, but it is hard to do so in an environment of coercion – and by not shaking hands, no Swiss Muslim was hurting anyone that required such a coercive response.

It wouldn’t have been an unreasonable accommodation to simply allow those students to slightly bow to their teachers in a sign of respect, for example, or place their hands on their hearts – just as conservative Muslims of both genders do all around the world.

This issue goes far beyond the matter of shaking hands. Rather, it involves the notion of pluralism, within the context of upholding fundamental values, in a multi-religious and multi-ethnic society – and further, against the context of rising anti-Muslim sentiment across our continent in Europe.

We ought to be concerned about this kind of muscular and coercive pseudo-liberalism. After all, isn’t the basic principle of liberalism simply to live and let live?

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and a non-resident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East in Washington, DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer

Updated: June 2, 2016 04:00 AM